A little improvisation is in order. The white dune we’ve arrived at, deep in the remote Puna Desert in the Catamarca province, is so immense, steep and smooth, it’s calling out to be boarded. But we didn’t come prepared for this. I suggest the idea to Fabrizio, my guide; all we need is something flat. We rummage in the back of the 4WD and find a few cardboard boxes, then break them down. They might work.
We’re at 3100m altitude, so it’s a demanding trudge to the top of the dune, scrambling up a trail of loose rocks, then stepping on to the pristine sand. “It’s like a roof on the desert,” says Fabrizio, as we look out over a vast landscape of smooth, wind-sculpted dunes. Then, we arrange our ‘boards’ on the tip of the ridge and prepare to launch.
This giant adventure playground in northern Argentina is an area that makes it on to travellers’ itineraries far less than Buenos Aires, Mendoza, and other hotspots. With cacti, llamas and a predominantly Andean culture, the region has more in common with southern Bolivia and Peru, than Euro-style Argentina. The scenery here rivals that of the far more famous Atacama and Uyuni, but with a fraction of their visitors. No crowds.
I started my adventure from the northern city of Salta, catching a tourist bus south through the red-rock canyons of Quebrada de las Conchas. The bus stops regularly to explore rock formations, such as the Devil’s Throat – a sort of stone amphitheatre – and to take in views of massive boulders that look as if they’ve been spat out of the ground and have landed at strange angles.
Soon enough, I arrive in Cafayate, one of Argentina’s most famous wine towns, known for the fruity white Torrontés, but also the reds Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat. My guide, Adrian, meets me at my hotel and, having failed to wait out a huge storm, we set off on two mountainbikes in rain, thunder and lightning. We’re quickly soaked, but it feels good to ride out of the town, past fields of vines. We may have braved the storm, but the first bodega has the bad manners to be closed, so we head back into town, the skies clearing as we arrive at Bodega Nanny.
“The important difference between Salta and Mendoza [Argentina’s most famous wine region] is the altitude,” says Maria de Lourdes, who shows me around. “Cafayate has the world’s highest commercial vineyards.”
Grapes here are grown at altitudes of about 1700-2000m, and a big temperature shift between the hot days and cold nights, helps produce a small, sweet fruit.
Cafayate is also a comparatively small producer. “Less than one per cent of national wine production comes from Salta. Mendoza produces about 80 per cent. This is boutique production,” Maria says.
I sample two very tasty Torrontés, a Rosé and a punchy Tannat, before riding out into the countryside to explore Vasija Secreta, the oldest vineyard in the Calchaqui Valley. Here, I work my way through another couple of Torrontés, a Cab Sauv and a Malbec.
Short of having sex in a bath filled with chocolate, I can’t think of two things that go so well together as cycling through this beautiful countryside and the odd pit stop for a fantastic glass of wine. The only way you could top it is to add cheese, so cycling back through town, Adrian buys a large block of Queso de Cabra (salty goat’s cheese) and two thick, charred tortillas hot off a roadside grill. We stop near the plaza to watch the world go by in the popular tourist town. “This is the food of adventure,” Adrian says, grinning as we gorge on this simple-but-delicious fare, as the evening sky turns pink.
Fabrizio, a local tour operator, picks me up the next morning and we make a full day’s drive out into the countryside, turning off the famous Ruta 40 (at more than 5000km long, the Route 66 of Argentina) and climbing steadily through cactus-covered gorges and small desert villages of adobe houses.
“It’s another world, another planet, another people, another landscape,” Fabrizio says as we drive, explaining his love of the Puna. “Geologically, it’s a world apart. Every day, every two or three hours, there’s a new landscape.” And he’s right – within one afternoon, you can go from snow-covered mountains to flat desert, by way of rolling dunes and volcano cones.
We stay at Fabrizio’s hotel, Hosteria de Altura El Penon. It’s not cheap – about £58pn – but comfortable and centrally located, allowing exploration of many of the Puna’s highlights.
Click to read more on Graeme’s desert boarding adventure…
Our morning of ‘boarding’ turns out to be a disaster. The card is too flimsy, the sand too soft and deep. ‘Board’ and body quickly sink into the sand. Despite valiant efforts, both sitting (as though on a sledge) and standing, we’re going nowhere fast. Instead, we settle for a fun sprint – limbs flailing – down the steep slope.
There’s a feeling of isolation and wilderness out here in the desert. “Always the Puna is like this,” Fabrizio says. “You might see a few miners, but that’s it.” We drive on, turning off the gravel road. “This is a nice part in the car,” says Fabrizio. “We go down this small canyon and it’s like flying over sand.”
A 4WD is essential here, as is a knowledgeable driver, and it’s handy to go out in pairs – this isn’t a place you want to get stranded. Looking back in our mirrors, we see the car that we’d been touring with is stuck. It takes the best part
of an hour to dig, push and tow it out of the sand.
We drive to a 55km-long field of pumice stone, the highest concentration of pumice stone on Earth. The tops of the jagged volcanic rock formations are a reddish-orange where they’ve yet to be eroded, but the majority of the labyrinth of rock is dazzling white. “It’s like walking on a mirror, it’s so white,” Fabrizio says.
I split off from the group to explore, occasionally checking in with a shout that shoots across the silent landscape.
I climb to the top of a sharp fin-shaped ridge and soak up the stillness – no voices, no wind – as I look up at clouds moving slowly across the blue sky, and the dark cone of Carachipampa volcano up ahead.
“We were in the white, now we’re in the black,” announces Fabrizio, as we park at the base of Antofagasta volcano, surrounded by desert filled with black, fairly recent (hundreds, not thousands, of years old) lava rock. The path is steep and consists of deep gravel that slips underfoot.
A strong wind doesn’t help. But what makes the climb more of a challenge is the latitude; at more than 3500m, everything feels more strenuous. “The climb’s only 300m in elevation,” Fabrizio says, “but it feels like conquering a peak.”
From the 3700m-high ridge, we can see Alumbrera volcano across the valley, and about 10 other volcano cones. “This area has one of the highest densities of volcanoes in the world,” Fabrizio tutors. “At the moment, they’re sleepy, but you never know … ”
We hike around the ridge of Antofagasta, navigating a grey-black crater with iron-red patches. Back at the base, I empty sand from my boots for the seventh time today.
The landscape and colours change again, as we approach the village of Antofagasta. There’s water here and plenty of greenery. White and brown llamas graze on long grass next to the river. The expanding village is made up of neat new adobe houses, small homes made from dark mud brick. There are homestays and a very basic hotel here for budget travellers. The local bar is closed, though, so we head to a shop where the owners open a few bottles for drinking at the counter.
We get up even higher (4700m) the next day, driving out into the wilderness, past basic lodges where hermit-like farmers live to protect their animals from pumas. Heavenly streaks of light break through the cloud onto vast plains, where we see graceful, golden deer-like vicunas and an ostrich-like bird called a nandu.
“All the white spots you see down there are flamingos,” Fabrizio says, as Laguna Grande comes into view. The huge, still lake, flooded with soft silvery slight, perfectly reflects the sky and the mountains. There are up to 15,000 flamingos here, though their reflections in the mirror-like water makes it appear double that number. “This is one of the greatest days I’ve been here; with this light, this cloud, this snow … ” Fabrizio says excitedly, as we hike breathlessly up to a look-out point.
It is a fantastic scene. Up ahead is the snowy ridge that marks the start of the Galan crater, 35km in diameter, one of the world’s biggest volcanic cauldrons. Slender vicunas stand on the water’s edge, and, behind them, thousands of bright pink flamingos stand, walk or fly over the water.
“Sometimes when I see Laguna Grande, I have tears in my eyes,” Fabrizio says. “When something outside connects with something inside, it is a very particular emotion.”
I know just how he feels.
See the next page for more sights to see in Argentina…
Best of the rest: Must-see Argentina
1. BUENOS AIRES: The Argentine capital is modern, busy, huge and sprawling, with everything from world-class galleries and museums to shops, bars and clubs, not to mention a whole lot of tango.
2. MENDOZA: Argentina’s largest producer of wine and home to the country’s national drink, Malbec. The city of Mendoza is pleasant enough, but it’s better to get out into the very walkable and bikeable countryside filled with olives and vineyards.
3. CHUBUT: Not just the home of the Welsh communities who fled the UK and settled in Patagonia, but there are wide open spaces, small villages, rainforests, glaciers and deserts here that only a small number of travellers make it to.
4. USHUAIA: The ‘most southerly city in the world’ is a quiet, laidback town. Not a destination in it’s own right, but it’s the place to pick up a cheap late deal for a cruise around the seventh continent, Antarctica.
5. IGUAZZU FALLS: The debate continues as to which is the better side to see these breathtaking falls from: Brazil
or Argentina? You can always do both.
Click for info on flights, accomodation and currency in Argentina…
Argentina: Flights, currency, accomodation
WHEN TO GO: North-west Argentina is best visited in April-September, when the weather is mostly dry and warm.
CURRENCY: £1 = ARS 6.84 (Argentine pesos)
ACCOMMODATION: A night at Hosteria Altura El Penon (hosteriaelpenon.com), costs £58. Graeme also stayed at Finca Valentina near Salta; see finca-valentina.com.ar for rates and availabilty. Backpacker’s Salta has dorm beds from £11.50pn. (backpackerssalta.com.ar)
GETTING THERE: British Airways offers daily connections from Heathrow to Buenos Aires from about £875 return, including taxes/ fees/ charges (ba.com). Andes runs return flights from Buenos Aires to Salta from £318 return. (andesonline.com)
Graeme travelled with Puna specialists, Socompa. The outfit does a four-day Puna package from £420pp, including transport, meals and accommodation at Hosteria Altura El Penon. socompa.com
See the next page for our insider’s guide to travelling in Argentina…
The Insider’s Guide: Argentina
Fabrizio Ghilardi, the owner of Socompa Tours, shares his tips for travelling in Argentina
What’s Argentina’s best-kept secret?
Argentina is famous for tango. The milongas are where the real tango lovers go to dance, where Argentinians go to dance. It can be a dancehall or something similar, but it’s better than a tango show. If you want to see real tango, you go to a milonga. It’s not professionals, just real Argentinians.
What’s your top tip for anyone travelling to Argentina?
Go hiking in Acsibi, close to Salta. It’s an incredibly easy hike in a secluded private canyon. It’s a natural wonder. And it’s only just opened to the public.
Where’s good for chilling out?
Jesuit Estancia Santa Catalina in Cordoba province. It’s a Jesuit estancia where you can sleep – a church and a farm built by Jesuits in 1767, about 250 years ago. It’s a quiet, relaxing and peaceful place, perfectly kept in the middle of nature just one hour away from Cordoba city. It’s like something out of The Mission movie.
Where’s good for an adventure?
El Chalten in south Patagonia. One of the best hiking areas is close to the Cerro Torres, one of the best mountains you can see on the planet, covered in glaciers. It’s fantastic.
Where’s good to party?
Palermo Soho, a neighbourhood in Buenos Aires. It’s full of high-end bars and restaurants, food and diversions, one of the top barrios for going out in the world. Better than Milan, I think, and level with London.